Breaking through the myths to find a ‘good’ school

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Parents consider one of their primary responsibilities to provide for the education of their children. So how do well-meaning parents decide the best place for their children? They look at the school’s average test scores, assuming that the highest average scores always mean the best schools. They check out demographic statistics, fearing that high populations of minority students translate to schools where gangs rule, violence is common and expectations are low.

Without ever stepping foot in the local public school, many put their toddlers on the waiting list for the right private school.

Far too often, parents never dig beyond the most basic statistics. They never learn that many diverse public schools have challenging curricula, high-achieving graduates and low rates of violence. The parents never investigate research that clearly shows the benefit of being educated in a diverse environment. They buy into misperceptions spread by people with no direct knowledge of what actually goes on inside the school walls.

Many parents who have experienced the extraordinary enrichment of diverse schools, including white parents like myself, would never trade them for a homogenous environment where every student looks and thinks like ours. I heard that message over and over again when I interviewed parents, students and educators from around the country for my book.

One parent who drives from a wealthy suburb to take her child to a diverse elementary school in a poor neighborhood of Norwalk, Conn., summed up the belief that she is opening doors for her daughter all her life. “My child is enriched. She will succeed in all environments. She doesn’t see boundaries I saw growing up.”

I saw this same enthusiasm when I visited Blaine Elementary School in Chicago. A resourceful principal, skilled faculty, and supportive parents all sing the praises of the opportunities offered to the children in this diverse environment, opportunities that benefit every child of every background. Some parents take long bus rides to escort their children to the school; others fight the neighborhood chatter that only a private school can be an acceptable choice.

Contrary to the myths, diverse schools like Blaine offer distinct advantages that are simply not available in homogeneous schools:

Classes are more engaging when students learn not only from the teacher and textbooks but also from the personal experiences of other students. As a 2nd-grade teacher told me, “nothing is more interesting to students than each other.” She uses the children’s own stories to enrich lessons across the curriculum.

Simple projects offer amazing opportunities for enhanced learning in a diverse school. At one Washington, D.C., high school with students from more than 85 nations, an American Government teacher randomly assigned her students into groups for a cooperative learning project on a Utopian government. The students in one group quickly realized that there were six religious perspectives represented within their group of eight students: fundamentalist Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Methodist, Sikh, and Muslim. They decided to investigate the relationship between church and state.

Imagine the richness of the discussions as the students reflected the different messages from their respective houses of worship, as well as their different life experiences. They enthusiastically researched their topic and presented a challenging report to their class, which proceeded to engage in lively discussion of its own. How well prepared these students will be for the type of interactive global community they will certainly face in the future!

Students learn critical thinking skills when their own perceptions are challenged. A chemistry teacher told me about a class discussion on the value of chemistry to society. Students discussed testing for safety in food, drugs and cosmetics, eventually discussing animal rights and the pros and cons of animal testing. “What are ‘animal rights’?” sincerely questioned a student who had recently left a country in Africa facing famine. The entire class stopped to consider this profound question. Most of these students had never thought about a situation where you either ate the first animal that came along or you starved. This prompted a larger discussion of the relationship between humans and animals, a key aspect of science.

Students are open to new approaches and new ways of thinking, not assuming there is only one right answer or solution. A student from Jackson, Miss., a community where middle-class parents banded together to preserve the economic and racial diversity of the public schools, told me that she felt one of the strengths of her school was that students listened to each other, even if the comments were challenging. “It’s one thing to believe things if they are facts and another if they are your opinion. Respecting others’ opinions makes you a much more intelligent person,” said the articulate teenager, adding, “The world is a lot bigger than one little school. Students here are open to the real world as it influences the community of our school.”

Not only are academic benefits dramatic, social benefits extend far beyond the pleasantries of getting to know someone from another culture. Our entire society gains from the lessons learned in a well-run diverse school, for example:

Students accept difference of all types. One mother told me how her young son developed alopecea areata, an autoimmune skin disease which resulted in his hair falling out when he was in 1st grade in a very diverse school. The principal let him wear a hat, even though there was a no-hat rule. Finally, he just took the hat off and didn’t care. Not one student noticed he didn’t have hair. “The kids just saw this kid is brown, this one is black, this one has a turban, and this one has no hair,” his mom said. “I took him to a few conventions so he could meet other kids with the same condition. We heard horror stories about reactions of students in other schools, including special private schools. I came away with a real appreciation for the power of a diverse classroom. I could not have paid for him to go to any school in the country to have a better experience than he did.”

Prejudices and stereotypes break down when students have the opportunity to get to know peers from other backgrounds on a personal level. At a high school basketball game, one white mother noticed that the star player wasn’t doing very well. “Mom, don’t you know it’s Ramadan and she hasn’t eaten all day!” replied her daughter. This Muslim student wasn’t equated with a terrorist but rather known as a gifted athlete who would fast from sunup to sundown and still go out on the court for the good of the team. When 9/11 hit, students in healthy diverse schools didn’t see their Muslim classmates as potential terrorists, they saw them as friends who might need a little support in the days ahead.

Students gain an appreciation for what they have. Want an antidote for the spoiled child syndrome? Send your kid to a well-run diverse school. Students learn appreciation for what they have from peers who not only share a room with siblings and cousins, but have a hard time finding a quiet place to study anywhere in their home. There are extraordinary lessons to be learned from a young man who spent four years in a Kurdish refugee camp after the last Gulf war before coming to the United States. With the encouragement of his art teacher, he won national art awards by translating his searing memories of those days to the canvas. He eventually earned a full scholarship to Pratt Institute to study architecture and currently has a job in that field. He told me how grateful he is to have “received the best education one can have.”

After exposure to many students who rose above similar life struggles each day, one middle-class student told me it was hard to deal with college peers from his social class who seemed to carelessly waste money. He was appalled when a classmate was unfazed that she lost a substantial amount of money by dropping all her courses late in the semester. “Can you get a refund?” he asked her. “No, but my bad grades won’t be reflected on my GPA!”

Of course, a diverse student body doesn’t immediately translate into a positive educational experience. These schools require strong, innovative leaders who willingly accept the challenges that a diverse student population presents. School leaders must face the challenges early, tackle them with energy and innovation, and build a school on a foundation of high expectations for all students and respect for each individual. And to accomplish this, every member of the school community, including parents and community members, must play an active, supportive role.

When it all comes together—a student body that is diverse racially, ethnically, economically and culturally; a strong principal and faculty; a supportive community—magic happens. And it is happening all over Chicago. But parents will never find out about these places if they don’t look beyond statistics. It’s time to visit the neighnorhood school. Talk to the principal. Talk to the teachers. Talk to parents. You may be surprised at what a “good school” looks like.

Eileen Gale Kugler is an advocate for diverse schools and the author of “Debunking the Middle-Class Myth: Why diverse schools are good for all kids” (Scarecrow Education Press, 2002). Her e-mail address is Ekugler@KuglerCom.com.